Soulful Sundays: The Pareto Principle

"It's more important to do the right things than to do things right." -Peter Drucker

Baseball is complex game. The varied pace and long length of the game, combined with the most detailed list of rules of any sport, makes strategy paramount for effective game play. The fielding of a ball is a work of art itself, not to mention the astronomically low probability of timing a successful hit. It is a wonder anything happens at all in the sport, yet somehow it always does, How?, you may ask. I think that the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 Rule, has a lot to do with it.

Let's take one of the most essential acts in baseball, running down a fly ball, for example. There are so many variables in describing the arc of that ball -- velocity, height, direction, spin, etc. -- in addition to the variables of the player going to catch it -- player speed, acceleration, height, handedness, etc -- that to consider them all would be a computational nightmare. That is precisely why the best outfielder's don't and can't overthink it. All that they have to do is keep their eye on the ball and run. Simple, right? (This is also why outfielder's often run into one another and fences.)

By choosing to focus on one or two variables, the fielder is executing the Pareto Principle. He is choosing the most effective 20% that will lead to 80% of his results. This principle shows up over and over again so often in the world that some call it a Law or a Rule. We see it in health, in economics, in finance, in wealth distribution, in ecology, in genetics, and on and on. We can use it in our daily lives to create more contentment and less frustration. Let me show you how.

If we know that most of our results come from a few components, the first and most difficult step is to determine which components those are. We can do so in one of two ways: Induction (i.e. eliminating as many variables as possible and then adding back in components slowly to see what results you get) and deduction (i.e. seeking the knowledge of someone more experienced than ourself on the subject). Often, we need to blend both to reach our goals. Choosing the right diet for our bodies or the right exercise plan follows this theme. There is an abundance of intellectual material on these subjects, but, until we begin actually testing it, that knowledge is meaningless.

Wherever you start, the process will look very different as you move along, so don't get paralyzed thinking that you have to get it right on the first go. Remember, masters in every domain didn't start that way. They grew over many iterations. Some of those iterations were failures, but the eventual trend was toward success. The key is to start with one or two things (i.e. the most essential things in whatever you are learning) and practice them until they become automatic. Then look for the next one or two basic things and repeat.

I have recently become more serious about my archery practice, and, before shooting, I spent a of couple hours online researching proper form. The more consistent your form, the more predictably the arrow will fly, and the more accurately you can make adjustments. Most of the lessons were quite simple, but, after implementing their insights, I began to improve. Now, after much practice, the basic setup for a shot is hardwired into my body, leaving me to focus on just one thing--where I want to put the arrow.

Eventually, our progress will plateau, or even regress. This is were the Pareto Principle offers us the greatest insight. In order to advance in our understanding of the complex, we must go back to the basics. Being stuck is an open invitation to start over again and re-examine our assumptions. Maybe we need more information. Maybe we are overthinking something that is really quite simple. Maybe the answer is staring us right in the face. Maybe we need to ask the basic question: "What is the 20% I can focus on right now that will yield 80% of my results?"

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